After the ISS: Big Plans for Commercial Space Habitats

March 20, 2017
Chad Anderson
Kelsey Tollefson
March 20, 2017
Chad Anderson
Kelsey Tollefson

Have you ever dreamt of living in outer space? Since the development of spaceflight, the off-Earth lifestyle has been limited to the select few aboard the International Space Station. For nearly 19 years, the station has played host to rotating teams of highly-trained international astronauts. The ISS, however, may be nearing the end of its tenure in low-Earth orbit.1 While the U.S., Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan have all extended their involvement in ISS operations until 2024,2 the venerable space station may be facing decommission shortly thereafter. This doesn’t mean that we’re abandoning the idea of living in space—in fact, because of they way they are exiting, it signals precisely the opposite. Soon, orbiting living spaces will no longer be the exclusive domain of agency-affiliated astronauts. Like so much in space, habitats are going commercial. By the 2020’s, NASA’s intention is to transition low-Earth orbit to the private sector—in terms of both supply and demand.3


The recent addition of an open-source docking bay on the ISS has prepared the station for an influx of visits by private spacecraft. As a new era of private spaceflight dawns, the demand for affordable commercial space habitats will grow. And as crewed missions travel further out into our solar system, safe and sophisticated living quarters will be needed to support the explorers on their journey. NASA and its commercial partners are working to develop solutions that will enable us to push the boundaries of human settlements.

A handful of commercial companies have partnered with NASA to design and manufacture next generation space habitats.

Image credit: NASA

As life aboard the ISS continues, NASA is actively preparing to establish a human presence beyond low-Earth orbit. NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division began soliciting proposals for deep space habitation concepts in late 2014.4 Through a program called Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP), NASA has awarded contracts to commercial ventures in order to develop “integrated habitation concepts.”5 These environments will be capable of supporting long-term life in cislunar space (the area between the Earth and the Moon, or in the Moon’s orbit) and, eventually, regions beyond. NASA has recently confirmed intentions to begin construction of a cislunar outpost as early as 2021—this aggressive timeline suggests that commercial space habitats may be closer than most people think.

In March 2015, NASA selected Bigelow Aerospace along with industry veterans BoeingLockheed Martin, and Orbital ATK to develop practical ideas for orbiting living spaces.6 A second round of NextSTEP contracts were awarded on August 9th, 2016.7 All previously mentioned companies received additional funding in order to build functional ground models of their habitat concepts. Two new teams were also awarded contracts: Ixion, a collaboration between NanoracksUnited Launch Alliance, and Space Systems Loral; and Sierra Nevada Corporation (in partnership with Aerojet Rocketdyne).8

NASA’s motivation for the NextSTEP partnerships is two-fold. While innovative living quarters will be crucial for eventual life in deep space, the agency is also looking to stimulate the commercialization of low-Earth orbit.9 As with most of NASA’s recent commercial initiatives, the NextSTEP contracts are structured as public-private partnerships.10 This enables space companies to develop their commercial technologies, with NASA as an anchor customer.

In-space habitats will come in a variety of different forms, and serve different purposes.

Image credit: Bigelow Aerospace

NASA now has six commercial partners working to develop habitats for our future life in space. The proposed environments range from short-term ISS expansions, to free-standing cislunar modules, all the way to “exploration augmentation modules” that will accompany NASA’s Orion capsule into Martian territory.

NASA is betting on long-time partner Bigelow Aerospace to build modules that will one day form commercial habitats in low-Earth orbit.11 Under the NextSTEP contract, the company is developing a module that will increase living space aboard the ISS: the Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement (XBASE). A prototype XBASE module, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), was installed aboard the ISS in May of 2016. Bigelow’s XBASE is the mission-specific name for an ISS-docked version of their BA330 habitat. The BA330 boasts 210% more living space than the extant ISS Destiny module, and is only 33% more massive.12 Like many proposed space habitats, the BA330 is modular—meaning that other habitats can be joined with the system in orbit.13 After establishing itself in low-Earth orbit, more BA330s could one day be deployed to further-flung areas—like the moon, and beyond.14

Image credit: Lockheed Martin

While Bigelow’s NextSTEP contract focuses on habitats for low-Earth Orbit, Lockheed Martin’s cislunar habitat will be tested for future expeditions to Mars.15 An important aspect of deep space living is autonomy. While travel and communication between low-Earth orbit and terrestrial segments is relatively rapid, astronauts living in lunar orbit will be far more isolated—and that’s nothing compared to the isolation of a Martian colony. For this reason, deep space habitats will need to be self-sustaining and well-equipped. Lockheed’s habitat prototype—a converted cargo module, like those used on resupply missions to the ISS—will need to demonstrate high-level integration with NASA’s Orion capsule.16 Lockheed’s module would be exclusively compatible with (and dependent upon) Orion, at least for the foreseeable future.17

Lockheed’s habitat is the only NextSTEP design that’s tied to a specific spacecraft.18 Other more commercially-focused modules are being designed for independent use aboard various launch vehicles—this makes them readily adaptable to commercial use. Sierra Nevada Corporation and the Ixion team are developing modules that can function as free-standing environments once deployed in orbit. Axiom Space—another commercial venture, though not under a NextSTEP contract—is also developing plans for a private space station in low-Earth orbit. Axiom hopes to launch a module to the ISS in 2020, which would be attached until station decommissioning.19 After the ISS is retired, Axiom’s module would remain in orbit and form the basis of a privately-owned space station.20  

Commercial customers will likely demand an upgraded experience compared to government-funded missions.

Image credit: Boeing

It’s one thing to develop terrestrial prototypes of deep-space habitats. Building a commercial network of space-based settlements will be a different beast entirely. Space tourism, as well as in-space manufacturing and logistics, will play a crucial role in establishing a sustainable space-based economy. 

Transportation of commercial customers will be a significant consideration. The ships that will ferry commercial passengers will need to be designed specifically with those users in mind, focused on safety, comfort and cost. Frequent launches will also be necessary in order to fully leverage the potential of space travel and in-space living. In the years to come, evolving technologies and increased competition between private launch providers will drive down launch costs, thus making a flight to space more affordable for customers.

Companies catering to commercial customers will need innovative training programs specifically adapted to a different type of user. While astronauts have months—even years—of specialized flight training, most civilians don’t have time for that level of commitment. Therefore, commercial space customers will need an effective crash-course on the ins-and-outs of spaceflight, with the hardware and software of the transport vehicle and habitat playing a larger role. For ease of use, commercial vehicles will need modern, intuitive user interfaces and systems, capable of operating more autonomously and intuitively.

While safety always has, and continues to be, a primary concern for space travel, commercial flights will require unique and comprehensive safety regulations designed to protect the civilians aboard. Commercial spacesuits will play a major role in ensuring safe—and comfortable—launch proceedings for private travelers. Boeing, Final Frontier Design, and other companies have designed a range of new and improved uniforms for commercial users. These new spacesuits boast improved mobility, increased visibility, and the potential for suit-to-vehicle connectivity. This would enable precision monitoring of the status of the suit’s systems, thereby decreasing the potential for malfunctions.


Once travelers are safely aboard an in-space habitat, they are likely to demand a greater level of amenities than government employees. This means that commercial space habitats will need to be designed with tourists in mind; more akin to a hotel than a research outpost. There will need to be comfortable sleeping quarters, readily-available (and palatable) food, recreation areas, and windows or view ports to take advantage of the unique views. Meeting the needs of commercial space travelers will require a vast array of products and services. Establishing a competitive landscape of in-space logistics providers will require a significant financial investment, but the potential payoff may be huge: Space tourism is expected to become a multi-billion dollar industry by the next decade.21

Thanks to innovative space companies and public-private partnerships, our future life in space may happen sooner than we think.

Image credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

Commercial space ventures and government agencies are eager to prove that they have the know-how to make life in space a reality. NASA will continue to allocate a healthy amount of its budget towards supporting commercial space development—given the current forward momentum, it's possible that private cislunar space stations could be up and running by the 2020s.22

In order to create a sustainable commercial economy in space (be it low-Earth orbit, cislunar, or beyond), many other pieces of the puzzle will need to fall into place. This means that space startups will have plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their value to commercial space. From building and launching the modules, to ferrying commercial passengers, to in-space amenities…there are myriad roles for forward-thinking startups to fill, and enormous potential to carve out a niche in commercial space.

There’s never been a better time to get involved in commercial space. If you’re ready to start investing in private space companies, we invite you to apply for membership to Space Angels.


  1.  Office of Inspector General. Audit Report: Extending the Operational Life of the International Space Station Until 2024. N.p.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 18 Sept. 2014. PDF.
  2. Rainey, Kristine. "Space Station 2024 Extension Expands Economic and Research Horizons." National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 27 Jan. 2014. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
  3. Webb, Carlyle. "NASA Commercial LEO Workshop." National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 19 Dec. 2014. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.
  4. NASA. "Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships." National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 05 May 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
  5.   NASA. "Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships." National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 05 May 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
  6. United States. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Broad Agency Announcement: Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) Amendment 1. 17 Nov. 2014. Web.
  7.  Foust, Jeff. "NASA Adds Companies to Program to Develop Deep Space SpaceNews, 11 Aug. 2016. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
  8.  Hambleton, Kathryn. "NASA Selects Six Companies to Develop Habitat Prototypes, Concepts." National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 09 Aug. 2016. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.
  9.  Hambleton, Kathryn. "NASA Selects Six Companies to Develop Habitat Prototypes, Concepts." National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 09 Aug. 2016. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.
  10. United States. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Broad Agency Announcement: Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) Amendment 1. 17 Nov. 2014. Web.
  11.  NASA. NextSTEP Partners Develop Ground Prototypes to Expand Our Knowledge of Deep Space National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 9 Aug. 2016. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.
  12.   Bigelow Aerospace. "B330." Bigelow Aerospace. Bigelow Aerospace LLC, n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
  13.   Bigelow Aerospace. "B330." Bigelow Aerospace. Bigelow Aerospace LLC, n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
  14. ULA. "Bigelow Aerospace and United Launch Alliance Join Forces to Foster a New Era of Sustainable Commercialization in Low Earth Orbit.United Launch Alliance. United Launch Alliance LLC, 11 Apr. 2016. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
  15. Foust, Jeff. "Lockheed Martin Seeks Additional Uses for Proposed NASA Habitat Purch Media, 13 Apr. 2016. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.
  16.  Lockheed Martin. "NextSTEP on the Journey to Mars: Deep Space Habitats." Lockheed Martin Corporation, 2016. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.
  17. Foust, Jeff. "Lockheed Martin Seeks Additional Uses for Proposed NASA Habitat Purch Media, 13 Apr. 2016. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.
  18.  Foust, Jeff. "Lockheed Martin Seeks Additional Uses for Proposed NASA Habitat Purch Media, 13 Apr. 2016. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.
  19. David, Leonard. "Private Space Station Coming Soon? Company Aiming for 2020 Purch Media, 28 Jan. 2017. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.
  20.  Davis, Jason. "A Company You've Never Heard of Plans to Build the World's First Private Space Station.The Planetary Society Blog. The Planetary Society, 3 Jan. 2017. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.
  21.  Davies, Alex. "Wealthy Adventurers Could Turn Space Travel Into A $1.6 Billion Industry." Business Insider. Business Insider, 19 Oct. 2012. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.
  22.  Malik, Tariq. "Private Space Stations Could Orbit the Moon by 2020, Robert Bigelow Says." Purch Media, 9 Mar. 2017. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
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